BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO's top official joined the U.S. and France on Thursday in calling for Afghan forces to take the lead in all combat operations by mid-2013, while continuing to assist them in fighting the Taliban.
Both U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have suggested in recent days that the coalition gradually should transition out of combat in 2013. Government forces are supposed to assume responsibility for the war at the end of 2014, when the coalition is expected to end its participation in the war.
The 2014 date was adopted by NATO leaders at a summit in Lisbon in November 2010. Until now, it was widely assumed that coalition forces would remain in a combat role until the end of 2014.
Speaking to reporters before a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Afghanistan remains the alliance's top operational priority and that the coalition has been making progress in the war.
He said transition to Afghan security control, which started last year, will continue through mid-2013, with the Afghan army and police gradually taking the lead in all regions of the country.
"From that time the Afghan security forces are in the lead all over Afghanistan, and from that time the role of our troops will gradually change from combat to support," he said.
This process will conclude at the end of 2014, when government forces are scheduled to assume full responsibility for security in the entire country, Mr. Fogh Rasmussen said. The allies are working on the details of a longterm partnership with Afghanistan, he said.
"But Afghans wil not be left alone at the end of the transition process. We are committed to providing support to Afghanistan through transition and beyond," Mr. Fogh Rasmussen said.
Speaking to reporters on the flight to Brussels, Mr. Panetta said, "Hopefully by the mid to latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role."
He added that this "doesn't mean we're not going to be combat-ready," but rather that the U.S. and other international forces no longer will be in "the formal combat role we're in now."
In Britain, the government said the previously agreed timetable on handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces was not being speeded up.
"The agreed (NATO) strategy has not changed," Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman, Steve Field, told reporters Thursday in London. "Under the agreed strategy, it is envisaged that (British and NATO) forces will continue to operate in a combat role in 2014."
The ministerial meeting comes a day after a secret NATO report was leaked to the media suggesting that insurgent morale remains extremely high after more than a decade of war and that the Taliban remains confident it will defeat the coalition.
The meeting also follows a series of attacks by members of Afghan forces on NATO troops or advisers. The repeated attacks have prompted worries about the degree of Taliban infiltration in the ranks of the national army and police, as they rapidly expand to meet the 2014 target for Afghan forces to take over security and most international troops to leave.
There have been at least 35 attacks on international troops since 2007 by Afghan soldiers, police or insurgents wearing their uniforms, according to a tally by the Associated Press. The number rose sharply last year to 17, up from six in 2010.
The ministerial meeting is intended to pave the way for the alliance's summit in Chicago in May. Ministers also are scheduled to discuss plans to deploy a ballistic missile defense system in Europe and maintaining the alliance's capabilities at a time of austerity and defense cuts in both the United States and Europe.
A NATO diplomat said the allies had decided to locate the headquarters for the missile shield at a U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany. The official spoke on condition of anonymity since he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Associated Press writer David Stringer in London contributed to this report.